East Hawaii News

Is it aliens? Nope. Mysterious bright light off Big Island’s east coast explained

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Greg Paris, who lives on the scenic route on the coast in Pepeʻekeo, took this picture of the bright light Monday night from his lānai.

A mysterious light burning off the Hilo coast has social media abuzz.

“Anyone see the weird light over the bay front tonight?” a member of the Hilo Happenings group on Facebook asked Monday evening. “Orange, then turned white. It also had a small light orbiting around it. … Lasted about 30 mins.”

“Does anyone know what the ball of fire like boat, glowing in the north east portion of Hāmākua coastline is?” another member of Hilo Happenings asked just before 7:30 a.m. on Oct. 28. “Kind of off the coast of the Pepeʻekeo area…It’s been showing up at dusk every evening for the past week. Glows all night long. Starts as a single ‘boat/light’ until dark, then the fire like flickering all night.”

Greg Paris lives on the scenic route on the coast in Pepeʻekeo. He told Big Island Now on Oct. 25 that the light was visible from his home but seemed like it was several miles out to sea. He speculated it was some sort of ship then, “but way brighter than any ship or activity we’ve ever seen previously.”

The Hawai‘i Fire Department received five phone calls Sunday about the mysterious light seen on the horizon off the island’s east coast, all the way to the break water in Hilo. One was in reference to a possible boat fire, which was referred to the U.S. Coast Guard. The others were just about the light.

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Is it a fishing boat? A drone? Was it on fire? What about visitors from another world?

The explanation behind the unidentified floating object that has piqued people’s insterest the week before Halloween, however, is more about science and the environment than it is science fiction.

The Norseman II. Photo from the Support Vessels of Alaska Inc. website.

The bright lights belong to the Norseman II, a former fishing boat that is now a survey vessel. It is carrying field scientists from Region 9 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who are conducting monitoring work in a study area that includes an ocean dredged material disposal site several miles offshore of the Hilo coast, according to oceanographer Allan Ota.

Ota — a member of the EPA Region 9 Water Division’s Ocean Dumping Program and Dredging and Sediment Management team — is aboard the vessel. The bright light people have been seeing are the vessel’s low sodium nighttime lights glowing in the distance. Ota said the site monitoring work is conducted on a continuous 24-hour basis.

Hawai’i Fire Department Deputy Fire Chief Eric Moller said the lights have more of an orange color and with wave action made it appear that the boat was on fire.

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“It was bright enough I could make out the horizon line of the water from it’s surrounding glow on a relatively moonless night,” Pepeʻekeo resident Paris said. “So pretty bright.”

He added that the lights were bright enough they could easily be seen from his home. A person replying to one of the Facebook posts asking about the light said they could even see it while driving down Saddle Road.

“It was distinct enough and bright enough to be unusual and to get our attention,” Paris said. “We see cruise ships, tugs and barges and can easily tell what they are. This was brighter than all of those would be, so thus my inquiry as to what’s going on.”

Moller explained low sodium lights can be brighter than others and have a yellowish to orange color.

Ota said EPA Region 9, which encompasses the Pacific Southwest including Hawai‘i, is responsible for designating and managing ocean disposal sites offshore of major harbors to support local dredging programs that are protective of the harbor and offshore marine environments while also making sure military, commercial and other vessels can safely navigate them.

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The offshore fieldwork includes a dual camera system to identify the extent and thickness of the deposits of dredged sediment dumped at the site. They also take samples of seafloor sediments inside and around the Hilo site.

This fieldwork will determine if “dredged sediments are dumped properly in the site and the sediments show the same non-toxic profile as approved for ocean disposal,” Ota said.

Most materials are banned from ocean disposal, but Ota said there are some that can be routinely dumped in the ocean if they are non-toxic. They include: dredged material, which is the vast majority of what he and other field scientists on the dredging and sediment management team review; fish waste; large vessels; marine mammal carcasses; and cremated or intact human remains.

Because survey vessels are expensive to operate, the scientists do the work around the clock, hence the reason for the bright lights. The Norseman II and the scientists aboard began their monitoring work Oct. 17, surveying a site off South O‘ahu first before coming to the waters off the east coast of the Big Island.

The last time the two sites were subject to monitoring was in 2013.

Ota said they are expected to leave the Hilo offshore area during this weekend and be back in Honolulu Harbor by Oct. 31 or Nov. 1.

Alien GIF used as a reply to a Facebook post about the mysterious light being seen off the east coast of the Big Island.

So the mystery behind the bright light off the Big Island’s eastern coastline didn’t dredge up anything too exciting, but who knows? Maybe “they” are here, just waiting to make first contact.

“There have been reports of UFOs Hāmākua side over the ocean in the past…. ,” someone replied to one of the Hilo Happenings posts.

After all, other bright lights have been seen off the island before.

“I saw something similar in early September,” another person replied to the same Hilo Happenings post.

You can track the Norseman II’s voyage by clicking here. For more information about the EPA’s ocean dumping program, click here.

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel has more than 20 years of experience in journalism, starting out as a reporter and working his way up to become a copy editor and page designer, most recently at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo.
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